The summer may be about to heat up, but for NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers, school’s not even close to letting out. The second marking period of the 36-race season has just ended, and it’s time to check up and see how the top drivers on the NASCAR circuit have performed during the final weeks of spring.
If you’re new to this and haven’t read my driver report card columns, feel free to read part one, part two, part three, and part four from back after race 7. Basically, I’ve decided to divide the year into five segments, and check on each teams’ progress after races 7, 14, 21, and 28. I’ll evaluate on and off-track performance and assign a grade for each seven-race stretch, and then give a final grade at the end of the season.
One more thing before we dive right into it; remember that a grade can be based on expectations as well as results. For example, a driver who is 35th in points with a team not expected to survive past Daytona will likely get a better grade then a driver 15th in points who was picked to contend for the title. Fair or unfair, that’s always been my grading system…
0 – Mike Bliss.
2005 Totals: 30th in points, 797 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, fell 5 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 15th – Charlotte.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: None.
Last time I talked about Mike Bliss in this space, I compared his season in this car to Ward Burton’s in 2004. Strong start until the short tracks, where bad luck killed off momentum, followed by a series of crashes and mechanical failures that caused Burton to get released and Bliss to come on board. In the past seven races, nothing’s changed. The 0 has been involved in three accidents in the last seven races, with two of those resulting in DNFs. The low point actually occurred this past Sunday at Pocono; Bliss got out of the car at the race’s first caution due to pain from a hernia operation, only to watch substitute driver Brendan Gaughan smash into Kyle Petty and bust up the radiator. Of course, everyone will always wonder what momentum the team COULD have received had Bliss held on to win the Nextel Open and transferred into the All-Star Race. But, the bottom line is he was spun out by Brian Vickers and never gained the momentum he needed; you begin to wonder now if he ever will. Stat that tells the story: last time Bliss led a lap in a Nextel Cup race that counted was October 15, 2000 at Talladega.Grade #1: C+. Grade #2: C-.
2 – Rusty Wallace.
2005 Totals: 8th in points, 348 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10s, fell 5 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 5th – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 15.
In his final season, Rusty’s beginning to show something he likely wishes his team had a decade ago – consistency. The Wallace teams of the ‘90s always seemed to have a “boom or bust” mentality: they either found themselves in victory lane or in the other end of the garage before they should be for other problems, DNFs which kept them from winning as many as three championships in that era. But this year, Wallace appears to be in better shape for the Chase with each passing race. The team went through a rough spot at Phoenix and Talladega; Rusty got stuck in two accidents not of his own making, but nursed the car to the end of the race each time, and came back after that to post five straight Top 20 finishes. Add to that a strong 5th at Dover where Rusty nearly notched his first win since Martinsville, and things continue to look up for the former champ, although there is still a ways to go to catch the Roush-Hendrick powerhourse. But overall, a big sigh of relief for a team who found themselves 15th in points at this time last year with no recovery in sight. Grade #1: A-. Grade #2: B+.
4 – Mike Wallace.
2005 Totals: 34th in points, 940 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, gained 1 spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 16th – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 3.
Driving for one of the few remaining true single-car teams, the other Wallace racing in Cup got off to a strong start, but appears to have hit a wall as of late. With a team that needed to make the Top 35 in owner points early on, Wallace accomplished that feat and then pulled away from 36th and below, allowing his team to concentrate on race setups and not worry about qualifying the race car. The team couldn’t make their strategy more obvious; Wallace has started 42nd on owners points four times since he cracked the Top 35. Only problem is, he can’t seem to move up on raceday even with the extra practice time on race setup, with just one Top 20 finish to show for his efforts. They’ll continue to be in every race from here on out, but this team’s got a lot of work to do in order to be a contender every Sunday. Grade #1: C. Grade #2: C.
5 – Kyle Busch.
2005 Totals: 18th in points, 548 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 4 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s, gained 9 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 2nd – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 153.
For someone who was supposed to spend his rookie season hooked to the back of a wrecker, Kyle is certainly hooked…to the front of the pack. Three top fives in his last three races make the younger Busch one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, suddenly turning the rookie race into a runaway. Owner Hendrick placed Kyle in both a Busch and Truck ride in the companion races to gain some more experience, and those trips back to the “minors” really appeared to build confidence…especially since Kyle won three of his last four starts in either series. The kid is maturing faster than everybody thought he would, and with the second half of the schedule coming up, the car and team will only get better as they visit tracks for the second time. Any talk of the Chase would be silly at this point, and I still think it’s not his time to win a race yet; but move over, Kurt cause you’ve company at the top of the family. Grade #1: B-. Grade #2:A-.
6 – Mark Martin.
2005 Totals: 5th in points, 328 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 4 Top 5s, 7 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, gained 2 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 3rd – Dover. (also won Nextel All-Star Challenge)
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 3.
Martin’s last full-time season continues to be filled with solid but not spectacular finishes. He’s slowly begun to solidify his hold on a Chase spot and actually seen a few breaks go his way (see: flat tire just before a race-ending caution at Pocono, Nextel All-Star Race win). But the thing that should concern fans looking for him to bring home the title is that the car can’t quite ever get enough steam to lead at the front of the pack. Top 5s will get you in the Chase, but you can’t win it when one of your own teammates runs better in almost every single race. Which is why a win in the next seven races could prove key to Martin’s title hopes: he needs to win and establish momentum heading into the “postseason,” because finishing at the back of the Top 10 every week just isn’t going to cut it in races 27-36. Michigan and Pocono in July appear to be his best chances to do that. Grade #1: B+. Grade #2: B+.
7 – Robby Gordon.
2005 Totals: 39th in points, 1406 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, maintained spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 27th – Charlotte.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 8.
Hard to tell from the stats, but the 7 team has actually been showing some signs of life as of late with new crew chief Greg Erwin; it just doesn’t reflect in the points standings. Gordon had a solid Top 20 car in Charlotte, possibly a Top 10 car, but was hampered by both oil and tire problems; he followed that up with a decent run at Dover that fell apart when the engine blew. Another oil line problem at Pocono brought the DNF total for Robby to 6 in just 10 starts, and the number of DNQs is now at 4 after issues at both Phoenix and Talladega. Clearly, there’s work to be done; but at least the team is developing a sense of direction. Grade #1: F. Grade #2: D.
8 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Totals: 16th in points, 504 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 1 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s, lost 1 spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 4th – Phoenix.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 3.
What a difference a year makes. Last year, Dale Jr. steamrolled through the first 14 races, taking home the Daytona 500 and taking control of the points lead while making a statement that he was the team to beat for the title. Now, he can’t get out of his own way fast enough, and he isn’t even the best driver on his own team. The 8 car still hasn’t led a lap at a non-restrictor plate race this season, and since crew chief Pete Rondeau was released prior to Charlotte the team has yet to finish in the Top 20. The most telling sign of this situation came Sunday, when interim crew chief Steve Hmiel tried to make a call for 4 tires instead of 2 when the 8 car had a flat but was overruled by Jr…bad decision, as the car ended up with another flat. The driver is making all the decisions now with this team…except deep down he doesn’t want to. He NEEDS someone to fight his own decisions; the problem is everyone on DEI refuses to do it. And until Little E has someone to put him in line, he’ll continue to slip slide down the ladder. The clock is ticking…who’s gonna step up and crew chief this car before it’s too late? Grade #1: C+. Grade #2: D.
9 – Kasey Kahne.
2005 Totals: 19th in points, 571 behind Jimmie Johnson. 1 wins, 4 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 1 wins, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s, gained 4 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: Win – Richmond.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 313.
After enduring several near-misses, piling up half-a-dozen second-place finishes in his first 46 starts, Kahne finally took home the checkered at Richmond in his 47th race on NASCAR’s top circuit. One would think that would establish some momentum for the young driver clearly in a sophomore slump in that point; but surprisingly, that hasn’t happened. Kahne right now seems to be wildly inconsistent; when he’s good, he’s really good, but when he’s bad, he runs awful. Dover & Pocono were great examples of that, places where Kahne clearly struggled with a loose race car under the 2005 aero rules, running midpack and eventually spinning the car out each time. Still, at least the win is out of the way, and while the Chase is only a marginal possibility, there are tracks coming up (Michigan, Chicagoland) where Kahne could clearly steal a few wins from the Hendrick-Roush contingent. Grade #1: C+. Grade #2: B.
10 – Scott Riggs.
2005 Totals: 23rd in points, 700 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 win, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 5 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 11th – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 5.
After a strong start, Riggs has clearly cooled off since, without a Top 10 in his last seven starts and failling to generate the type of positive hype the team was feeding off early in the season with the strong Daytona finish. While wrecks have played a part, the bottom line is the team just hasn’t been running as well, now back to a Top 20 car in the race instead of a contender. In fact, the downward spiral has already caused a crew chief change (Rodney Childers in, Doug Randolph out) and put Riggs back in the rumor mill for Silly Season, something most expected from the beginning of 2005. The first race with Childers was hard to judge (Riggs had a flat), but with the season quickly tilting towards disappointment, the next 7 races are critical to Riggs’ future. Whether he will stay or he will go is unclear, but if Riggs does want to leave and step up a notch equipment-wise for 2006, he’s going to have to step it up a notch in performance over the next stretch of races. Grade #1: B. Grade #2: C-.
11 – Jason Leffler.
2005 Totals: 36th in points, 1095 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 2 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 20th – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: None.
A season full of disappointment reached a low at Charlotte when Leffler, out fo the Top 35 in owner’s points, failed to qualify for the race; at that point, most who followed the sport thought Fed Ex would demand the driver of the 11 to be shown the door. But instead, owner Gibbs and Fed Ex have shown incredible patience in this day and age, replacing Leffler’s crew chief instead with proven veteran Mike Ford, last with the #88 team of Dale Jarrett. While it’s obvious the crew chief change has bought Leffler more time, it’s already unlikely the driver will pilot the car at Sonoma (Terry Labonte will drive in an effort to get the car back in the Top 35) and the pressure is certainly on Leffler in all other races to perform. The key now is to simply keep qualifying into these races on time so the team can sneak back into the Top 35; one more DNQ, and we’ll be talking about another driver in this space after race 21. Grade #1: D. Grade #2:F.
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